A very familiar whodunit with an unfamiliar setting, The Dry sees Eric Bana on home Australian turf as a cop investigating the case of a man who killed his wife and kid before turning the gun on himself.
How familiar? How about: cop returns to old stomping ground, drawn back by a case which also re-awakens some slumbering trauma from years before. Yes, that one. Ringing the changes is the parched, dust-dry Outback where years-long drought is squeezing the life out of Kiawarra, a one-horse town dominated by farming, as well as the sweat-stain masculinity that’s an Aussie specialty. Drinking, brawling, swearing and scowling, plenty of all those too.
Specifically, Eric Bana plays the city cop returning to the town where half the inhabitants still think he was responsible for the death of a pretty teenage girl decades before. He’s there for the funeral of an old friend, Luke, the one who’s just committed murder/suicide. After being asked by Luke’s decent parents to have another look at what’s been declared an open and shut case, Aaron (Bana) gets to work, to the sound of ghosts rattling in closets, chickens coming home to roost and angry vigilantes warming up their welcomes, convinced the guitly guy is already under lock and key.
It will come as no surprise to learn that beneath the surface of the outwardly conformist farming community lurk some very dark secrets, because that’s what this genre doles out week in/week out in rafts of TV whodunit shows featuring unconventional detectives. Bana, thankfully, keeps in reserve most of the elements of the troubled-cop identikit and plays Aaron as a quiet and serious man, as per Jane Harper’s original book. Flashbacks to Aaron’s youth – larking about with pretty, soon-to-be-dead Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), and friends Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell) and Luke (Sam Corlett) – reveal that he was ever thus, though time has dessicated his personality even more, in the same way it’s sucked all the moisture out of the ground and up into the atmosphere in the intervening years.
Bana is an actor of great range, originally a stand-up comedian (it now seems amazing but there it is) who broke through seriously in the gangster flick Chopper in 2000 (still one of the scariest, lairiest performances you’re ever likely to see) before going on, in films like Hulk, Troy and Munich, to swim in some very big ponds. Who knows why he’s backed away from the A-list circuit working with the likes of Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg but he has. He remains fearsomely busy and a great actor and this film really benefits from his coiled-spring presence.
The cast are all good, though, and it’s a great showreel for Australian character actors – Keir O’Donnell as the local cop Aaron teams up with, Genevieve O’Reilly as the grown-up Gretchen, Matt Nable as the seriously angry prime suspect Grant, to name but three – and help bolster what is this film’s real USP, its sense of place. Kiawarra feels real, its residents feel like they belong there.
DP Stefan Duscio shoots clean and bright, so we can see the soil dust hanging in the air; Peter Raeburn’s soundtrack smoulders and simmers, like a bushfire could take hold at any moment. The craft skills are strong.
There have been other Outback whodunits, and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone share the sense of outright hostility and chippy masculinity that’s on display here, though drought as a setting (and possibly as a metaphor? discuss) has rarely been co-opted so well into the whodunit genre.
Fans of the genre will lap it up, though its sheer familiarity is a real handicap and one of the plot reveals is so lame it should be on a charge sheet. If you’re after bogglement, good though the players and creators are, you’re better looking elsewhere.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021